Edit & Opinion

Make suo moto disclosure of COVID19 expenses

Soon after the COVID 19 lockdown when I urged upon the Government through a facebook post to make voluntary disclosure of COVID 19 related expenses in Jammu & Kashmir, some people criticized me as to why I was asking such irrelevant questions at a time when we all should support and cooperate with authorities. First of all I don’t understand what does support and cooperation mean to many people ? Does it mean we should not at all question the Government ? Those well-meaning citizens , journalists or even activists who keep questioning  the Government  are labeled with different names like blackmailers , anti-establishment or even anti-nationals.  For some time I didn’t post anything on social media related to COVID 19 expenses, but within a month or so the same people who were critical of my posts and write-up’s started agreeing with my viewpoint. 

Initially it was alleged that some officials in Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and Health & Medical Education Department were looting state exchequer by purchasing medicines, different medical equipments , chemicals and lots of other things on exorbitant rates, but with the passage of time several other Government officials were also found busy in looting state exchequer by embezzling funds meant for COVID wellness centers, quarantine centers, erecting barricades, hiring vehicles and all that . Even money that is made available for welfare of COVID + ve patients is said to be looted in many cases as patients are not provided the healthy food to which they are entitled to . 

Those people who were housed in quarantine centers also question the Govt for not being supplied proper food while some quarantine centers or wellness centers in Srinagar and some other areas were supplying high quality food to inmates. The question is how can the Govt provide better quality food at one place and bad quality foot at some other COVID 19 wellness center ? 

Suo moto disclosure

Several Govt officials who are busy looting state exchequer claim that they provide better facilities to COVID 19 patients and persons kept in Quarantine centers. For the last 5 months people are demanding suo moto disclosure of funds made available for each COVID 19 patient and persons housed in Quarantine Centers in the past, but authorities just bypass these pleas ?  If Govt provided Rs 200 / day for a person in Quarantine center or COVID 19 wellness center or hospital, he or she will never demand Rista’s and Kabab’s or Mutton Biryani to be served on daily basis , but it is the moral duty of authorities to tell the citizens or at least inmates or patients or their relatives how much is to be spend on each person per day ? If the amount to be spent is less than Rs 100 or Rs 150 per day , nobody would question the authorities , but when District Administration and authorities at Secretariat are mum people start making accusations. All these accusations & allegations  can’t always be correct, but who is to be blamed ? The Government of course who don’t want to be transparent at all !  

The details about daily expenses should have been made public by the Government through social media , newspapers and on official websites on a weekly basis , but this isn’t done. When people like me or anybody question the Government , the officers at helm start yelling. The corrupt lobby of Govt officials believe that funds under their disposal belongs to them and they are its sole custodians. Relatives of COVID 19 patients from Sopore told last month that their loved ones are provided food prepared from sub-standard ration. Similarly COVID 19 positive patients who were admitted in a quarantine center in Budgam in June told me  that they were provided sub-standard food for three weeks. But in Srinagar district the situation was quite different. The COVID 19 wellness centers had better facilities and some which are still operational provide better food as compared to other districts of the valley.  

No Right to Know

Recently I had a detailed chat with a young man who was tested COVID +ve around June end. He was sent to a COVID 19 wellness center in Budgam ( name of place withheld) along with 15 more COVID +ve persons.   

“ I along with 15 persons were never told how much money the Govt was spending on us per day ?  If it was mere Rs 100 per day, we should have been informed at least and we would not have complained about being served rice and sabzi daily. Wasn’t this our right ? Only once a week an inferior meat ball (Rista) was served. The food was supposed to be cooked inside the center but that was supplied from some other place and when it reached us it was always cold. We would most of times order food from outside” said Sajad Ahmad (name changed)

Purchases on Exorbitant rates

Civic institutions are said to be purchasing sanitizers, masks, disinfectants and lots of other things on exorbitant rates. Reliable sources say that in many places sub-standard and inferior quality sanitizers have been purchased as well. Plain bills are taken from chemists and grocery stores and then filled in by officials in the accounts section themselves. A sanitizer which costs Rs 20 has been purchased @ Rs 50 or Rs 60 per bottle. A municipal counselor who tried to seek information about the purchases made by his own Municipal Council was denied the same under RTI Act. He went public as well through social media. 

 If a Municipal Councilor is denied information about COVID 19 expenses how can we expect an ordinary citizen would be provided these details  ? Irony is that not even a single municipal institution in J&K has made voluntary disclosure of purchases made by them during COVID 19 on their official websites or district administration websites ? This is mandated as under RTI law.  A forest officer I was told was provided Rs 50,000 by Govt under COVID 19 expenses, he is said to have spent Rs 5000 and rest kept in his kitty. Several BMO and CMO offices are also allegedly involved in bungling for the last 5 months. Such officials get encouraged to continue with their criminal acts as nobody questions them nor is voluntary disclosure under RTI enforced especially in J&K ? 

Conclusion     

For the last 5 months the Central Information Commission (CIC) issued several circulars and orders to make voluntary disclosure of information vis a vis COVID 19 expenditure, but CIC’s orders seem to have no takers in Jammu & Kashmir ? Leaving  aside CIC’s order and circulars , the section 4 of RTI Act 2005 makes it mandatory upon public authorities to make proactive disclosure of information. At a time when people can’t go to Govt offices to seek information under Right to Information Act (RTI) and online mode of filing RTI applications isn’t available to people in J&K , isn’t it the duty of the Government to make all the COVID 19 expenses public at secretariat level , directorate level and district level ? Let people know how much has been spent ? and how it has been spent ?Officials who are looting COVID 19 funds need to be identified and sent to jail. I appeal to Hon’ble LG Manoj Sinha and Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Shri Bimal Julka to issue a direction to the J & K Government to make suo moto  disclosure of COVID 19 expenses from March 2020 onwards …

 

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About the author

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhatt

Muzaffar has been actively associated with Right to Information Movement in J&K which led to the enactment of Right to Information legislation in Jammu and Kashmir. He writes on the issues of Governance, Environment and Social Development.